How did 70-plus children go missing from the Kansas foster care system?

The Kansas Department for Children and Families can’t account for more than 70 children in foster care. What, exactly, is the state doing to find them?
The Kansas Department for Children and Families can’t account for more than 70 children in foster care. What, exactly, is the state doing to find them?

If the state of Kansas were parents, we’d report them for neglect.

The state is responsible for about 7,000 children through the foster care system.

And in fact, Kansas has been neglectful.

The state doesn’t know where more than 70 children in foster care ate their last meal or even if they’re safe. The state can’t tell you where all of these children sleep each night.

Three foster children, sisters ages 12 to 15, went missing in late August from the Tonganoxie home of their great aunt, who had custody of the girls. Media was alerted when Tonganoxie police posted on their Facebook page, seeking information from the public.

It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize the dangers that might be lurking for those girls. Consider what type of person would be willing to offer them a meal or a place to sleep while not alerting authorities.

To plead its side of this sad story, the Kansas Department for Children and Families on Wednesday released its protocols, guidelines for case managers to follow when a child goes missing or is abducted.

Certainly, step one is to have such measures in place.

But they are ineffective if the state department doesn’t ensure that such guidelines are consistently followed. And that remains an unanswered question.

Research suggests that children who run away from foster care are more likely to do it again. It also notes that simply developing such policies may not be sufficient. Training is necessary to identify warning signs that could help officials flag children who are likely to run away. Those youth and their caregivers need extra support.

Children in foster care are twice as likely as other children to run away. Studies have found about 1 to 2 percent of children in foster care will run from a kinship arrangement with an extended family member that has been coordinated by the state, from a foster home or a care facility.

The number of unaccounted for foster children in Kansas fits within national averages. Yet that reality check doesn’t make this problem any less urgent.

In a statement, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore seemed to request leniency as she offered a vague defense. “We work closely with our foster care contractors, law enforcement, the school system and affected families to locate missing children as quickly as possible,” she said.

But the mere existence of policies and a general pledge by state officials to do their best doesn’t suffice in this scenario. Legislators must continue to demand specifics from Gilmore to understand if Kansas is abiding by best practices to keep children from leaving their foster placements in the first place and to respond quickly when kids go missing.

Since 1997, Kansas has contracted with private agencies to help manage case loads of foster children.

KVC Kansas, which manages the eastern part of the state, told members of a legislative task force that it has about 38 children whose whereabouts are unknown.

Saint Francis Community Services, which handles the western portion of the state, can’t account for 36 children.

Children in foster care do run away, sometimes trying to unite with friends or extended family. Some foster children are abducted by a relative or parent who no longer has the legal right to have the kids in their home.

But when that happens, how, exactly, does the state respond? The contractors need to be held to account, but ultimately, the state bears responsibility for these children.

And with more than 70 foster children missing, Kansas has been derelict in this duty.